The federal government’s latest plan to close a “homework gap” for kids who lack Wi-Fi at home is to bring such services to one place they may spend hours per week: on the bus to and from school.
The move is one facet of the president’s overall goal to bring high-speed internet access to every American. But the school bus plan is drawing objections from Republicans that the cost isn’t worth the effort and will only enable unsupervised kids to spend more time on social media.
In a divided vote, the five-member Federal Communications Commission issued a declaratory ruling on Oct. 19 that it will allow E-Rate program funding to be used for Wi-Fi on school buses starting July 1, 2024. The program was created in 1996 to assist schools and libraries with obtaining affordable broadband at a time when only 14 percent of the nation’s K-12 classrooms had access to the internet.
Many students, especially in rural areas, still lack access outside of school.
In a statement following the vote, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel described a recent visit to a Vermont town that studied the significant amount of time that students spend commuting.
“This is an area of the country where students, like many in remote communities, spend a lot of hours on a school bus. Lots of them ride an hour to get to class in the morning and then ride an hour again back home at the end of each day. It is also an area where broadband connections are sparse,” she said. “The school in this little town in Vermont decided they were going to do something about it. They got support to outfit their school buses with Wi-Fi. For their rural students, they decided to turn ride time into connected time for homework. Call it Wi-Fi on wheels.”
During her tenure, Rosenworcel said she has prioritized closing “the homework gap,” referring to the struggle students who lack home internet access face in completing their work.
The FCC’s action became possible after the Senate in September confirmed Anna Gomez, which gave Democrats the 3-2 majority needed to approve such measures. The commission’s two Republicans voted against it.
The plan’s start coincides with the June 2024 expiration of the agency’s Emergency Connectivity Fund, which covered the costs of items like computers and Wi-Fi hotspots for off-campus use by students during the COVID-19 pandemic when many schools were operating virtually.
Prior to the FCC decision on school bus Wi-Fi, Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., opposed the idea, which is part of Rosenworcel’s “Learn Without Limits” initiative.
“The law is clear: the Commission’s E-Rate authority is explicitly confined to classrooms and libraries,” they wrote in a September letter to FCC Commissioner Gomez. “Congress has continuously maintained the structure of the E-Rate program as originally established and deliberately limited its scope to school classrooms and libraries. The Commission has no authority to expand this scope without congressional direction.”
The Republicans argue that Rosenworcel’s plan is redundant given other federal broadband assistance programs, will increase fees on telecommunications providers that are used to pay for the E-Rate program and will not improve learning outcomes.
Rosenworcel’s office did not respond to a request for comment. However, current law allows E-Rate funding to be used for “additional services for educational purposes,” she noted in her statement.
This is not the first attempt to use the E-Rate program to put Wi-Fi on school buses at the federal level. In the 117th Congress, Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., introduced legislation to require providing Wi-Fi access on school buses to be eligible for support under the program.
Luján chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation’s Communications, Media and Broadband Subcommittee.
His bill was co-sponsored by an ideological gamut of senators, ranging from Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., and progressive Edward J. Markey, D-Mass.
Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., then a member of the House, sponsored companion legislation, which had only Democratic co-sponsors.
Cruz, in response, has introduced a bill that would prohibit social media on any service, device or network supported by the E-Rate program.
“Addictive and distracting social media apps are inviting every evil force on the planet into kids’ classrooms, homes, and minds by giving those who want to abuse or harm children direct access to communicate with them online,” he said in a statement. “The very least we can do is restrict access to social media at school so taxpayer subsidies aren’t complicit in harming our children.”
The bill would require schools that receive E-Rate funding to adopt a policy that limits screen time for students and mandate that the FCC create a public database of such schools’ internet safety policies.
Schools and libraries that receive E-Rate support currently must certify that they have measures to block or filter internet access to obscenity, child pornography or other content that is harmful to minors.
Cruz’s legislation is co-sponsored by fellow Commerce Committee members Ted Budd, R-N.C., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and is backed by a slew of conservative groups, including Heritage Action and the America First Policy Institute.
The measure is much narrower than other proposals addressing such platforms, such as one from Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, with 10 bipartisan co-sponsors that would ban children under 12 from having social media accounts and require that 13- to 17-year-olds have parental consent.
Lawmakers have increasingly scrutinized how social media products impact children since a 2021 Wall Street Journal report on internal research at Facebook showing that teenagers, especially girls, blamed Instagram for their anxiety and depression. Facebook and Instagram are both part of Meta Platforms Inc.
Thirty-three states sued the company last week, alleging its platforms designed addictive features that target children. Eight additional states and Washington, D.C., filed separate complaints in federal, state or local courts.